"Ray," Brad says. He holds the chamber up to eye level and carefully swipes the cleaning brush in and out. "Take the sneakers off your teeth and quit running your fucking mouth."
Ray just grins and ducks a little, craning his head so that he's in Brad's line of vision. Brad keeps his eyes focused on his rifle, but he can still see Ray's stupid face bobbing just beyond it, blurring into the background but distinct all the same. This is characteristic of Ray after a good dosage of Ripped Fuel. Swooping into people's personal space, talking in rapid bursts with weird pauses in the middle of sentences -- just generally acting like a whiskey tango hummingbird who flew too close to his neighbor's meth lab.
But then he actually backs off, which means that the ingested Ripped Fuel has already been pissed out onto this ancient desert and Brad has successfully hidden the emergency stash in a secure spot. Without uppers, the fidgeting and the loud mouth and the jittery eyes all fade away, leaving behind a Marine who looks oddly innocuous. Brad's actually fond of Ray during these instances. It's true that he's fond of him most the time, but he'd rather redo SERE for the rest of his life instead of saying that shit out loud.
Plus, usually that sentiment is drowned out by the overwhelming urge to choke his little chicken neck.
The sun is slanting in through the cami netting, soaking everything with buttery yellow light. Brad feels calm. Placid, almost. It might just be the time of day, everything overblown with reds and yellows and oranges, or maybe it's only a random shift of mood. Artillery rounds are still audible; close enough to be soothing, far enough not to be of concern.
"I want to motorboat and tittyfuck my girlfriend so hard right now. Goddamn," Ray says, but without any of the fervor or hand gestures that usually come as a package deal whenever he talks about his girlfriend. He sounds more wistful than anything else. A kid wishing out loud for a Christmas toy. "Yo, Brad, you got any chicks waiting for your kosher cock at home? Minus all the prostitutes on the Eastern seaboard?"
"East coast whores are too frigid. They mirror the weather. Didn't I teach you this already?" Brad replies evenly, putting his weapon back together, not taking the bait.
Ray just grumbles something unintelligible.
"Jesus Christ. Are you feeling, dare I say it, nostalgic for freedom fries and NASCAR pussy?"
Brad finally looks at Ray, who's now lying stretched out on his back, head pillowed by his helmet, suspenders hanging off his shoulders. In this position, his MOPP suit looks sad and deflated. But Ray's been crackhead skinny from the beginning. Of course, he displays the stereotypical complex about it, always trying to goad Rudy into judo-chopping his ass all the way back to BRC and pushing people's buttons until someone has to interfere to keep him from getting punched.
"Fuck yeah I'm nostalgic," Ray crows, sounding a bit more like his amped up self. He crooks an arm behind his head. "We're stuck in a neverending cycle of fuck-ups, all perpetrated by commanding officers who probably shake a magic eight ball to decide missions, in a country that's drier than Hasser's sister's vagina. Man, I'm nostalgic for anything but this bullshit."
He bats away the balled-up sock that comes flying at his face, presumably thrown by Hasser. "So answer the fucking question."
"No, Ray, I don't," Brad grunts out as he leans over to prop his rifle up against a bunch of humrat boxes.
"Not anymore, but you did," Ray prods knowingly. "Right? Man, some girl had to have fucked you up real bad. Torn out your dick through your mouth. Metaphorically," he adds when Brad shoots him a look. "Seriously, what's your damage? You need to confide in your Ray-Ray, if only because I'm the only one in this entire pussy platoon to have the balls to ask."
Brad leans back, rubbing his shoulderblades against the Humvee's rear tire to get settled. "Are you implying that instead of fighting a war, my men sit around trying to dissect what may or may not have happened in my love life?"
"Yeah, right after our book club meetings but before our circle jerk at 2100," Ray says. "Come on, we'll get Rolling Stone to ghostwrite your tragic story. Oprah will endorse it and it'll become a motherfucking Lifetime movie, starring some hot chick that I'll get to bang. Don't you want me to bang hot chicks, Brad?"
It's almost dark now. The temperature has dropped considerably and when Brad looks up, there are stars scattered like pinpricks in the sky. He blinks, trying to reorient himself in time. They'll probably be oscar mike soon. That's Brad's hunch, which means they'll actually be oscar mike in ten hours or so.
"Damn, homie. Now I'm starting to believe it was some serious shit," Ray says, apparently having waited long enough for an answer. "You got me spinning all these crazy-ass stories in my head, like some West Side Story thing where -- "
"My best friend," Brad cuts in abruptly. He rests his forearms on his knees and examines his hands in the ensuing silence. "And my girlfriend. Ex-girlfriend. Ex-fiancee."
His fingertips are covered in black grease, caulked into the whorls like tiny rivers on a map. "Anyway, they're married now," he finishes.
Ray doesn't respond. Brad glances over and sees Ray simply looking at him, a tiny, wry smile playing at the corners of his mouth. Pitying, no. Commiserating, maybe. Brad just looks back steadily.
Ray lifts one shoulder up, shrugging slowly, silently. Brad curls his lips, but it doesn't feel like a smile.
He hears the footsteps a few seconds afterward, coming up on his right side. A pair of boots steps into view in his periphery and Brad glances up. LT nods down at him just as a burst of tracers light up in the distance, reflecting off the LT's eyes in quick flashes.
Ever since the war started, Brad's been processing images by instinct -- this particular moment triggers brief recalls of all their one-on-one conversations, the shamal winds that make LT's eyes red and watery, and one time in mess at Mathilda, when Brad was standing behind him in line and had noticed that the back of his neck was pink, slightly sunburned all the way down past his collar.
"We're oscar mike in five," says the LT. "Wake Trombley up, get ready to move."
"Sir," Brad replies.
Ray sits up. "Hey, Brad. Listen to the only doctor who knows what the fuck he's talking about when he says that bitches ain't shit. Right, LT?"
"Affirmative, Corporal Person," the LT says with barely any hesitation. He tilts his head. "I also believe he was the one who said, 'You're more of a bitch than a bitch'."
"Nah, sir, that was Kurupt. But it's kind of cute, watching you try to be street."
"LT couldn't be street if he got curbstomped," Brad says.
The LT breathes out a smile. "I appreciate the vote of confidence, Sergeant."
Then he walks toward Poke's team to relay the same message. Soon after that, everything comes alive around them -- engines catching with hacking coughs, people yelling, weapons being checked at least twice, Ray rooting around Brad's footwell in the Humvee and mumbling, "Where the fuck is the goddamn Ripped Fuel?"
Garza comes stumbling down a berm just as Brad is standing up. He clicks his chinstrap into place and calls, "Gabe, go put your retard helmet on. We're oscar mike."